A Washington Post commentary about the controversial Washington, D.C. school Superintendent Michelle Rhee mentions three former San Diego Unified superintendents, Carl Cohn, Alan Bersin and Tom Payzant, two as positive examples and one as a cautionary tale. Though it is addressed to Rhee, the piece could also be of interest to current San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier, a fast-moving reformer frequently at odds with the teachers union and the new principals union, now faced with a new majority on the school board.

The writer, former Arlington, Va. Superintendent Larry Cuban, urges Rhee to take a slower, less confrontational approach to reform and avoid inciting war with employee unions, comparing school reform to a marathon instead of a sprint.

[S]printer superintendents err in jumping on unions too early in their long-distance race for better student achievement. They suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school. … This error in thinking has occurred often in districts where impatient superintendents have demonized unions, only to discover that they have stumbled into a war as a result. … When that happens, kiss reform goodbye.

Cohn and Paysant, both former San Diego Unified superintendents, got praise from Cuban for their slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach in Long Beach (where Cohn served before San Diego) and Boston (where Payzant served after San Diego.):

“Us vs. them” is not predestined. Boston’s Tom Payzant and Carl A. Cohn in Long Beach, Calif., served more than a decade in their districts and received national awards for raising student performance. Neither saw teacher unions as foes to be squashed. They convinced union leaders that it was in teachers’ best interests to work with them. Trying to destroy the union will not throw 4,000 teachers behind the mayor and chancellor.

But Bersin was offered as an example of what not to do.

Look at Alan Bersin, who ran out of gas as San Diego’s superintendent in 2005. Determined to lift student learning rather than preserve school officials’ status quo, he reorganized the system and fired administrators. He went after collective bargaining rules that protected seniority rights and incompetent teachers. Union leaders fought him by seeking national and state allies and turning to parents. He exited well before fulfilling his reform agenda.

Interestingly, however, while this editorial framed Bersin as the unsuccessful sprinter and Cohn as the marathon winner, Cohn ended up being a short-timer in San Diego, where his clashes were less often with unions than with the school board. Bersin actually outlasted him here.


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